A Murder Foretold
Unravelling the ultimate political conspiracy.
by David Grann April 4, 2011
Rodrigo Rosenberg knew that he was about to die. It wasn’t because he was approaching old age—he was only forty-eight. Nor had he been diagnosed with a fatal illness; an avid bike rider, he was in perfect health. Rather, Rosenberg, a highly respected corporate attorney in Guatemala, was certain that he was going to be assassinated.
Before he began, in the spring of 2009, to prophesy his own murder, there was little to suggest that he might meet a violent end. Rosenberg, who had four children, was an affectionate father. The head of his own flourishing practice, he had a reputation as an indefatigable and charismatic lawyer who had a gift for leading other people where he wanted them to go. He was lithe and handsome, though his shiny black hair had fallen out on top, leaving an immaculate ring on the sides. Words were his way of ordering the jostle of life. He spoke in eloquent bursts, using his voice like an instrument, his hands and eyebrows rising and falling to accentuate each note. (It didn’t matter if he was advocating the virtues of the Guatemalan constitution or of his favorite band, Santana.) Ferociously intelligent, he had earned master’s degrees in law from both Harvard University and Cambridge University.
Rosenberg had been born into Guatemala’s oligarchy—a term that still applies to the semi-feudal Central American nation, where more than half of its fourteen million people, many of them Mayan, live in severe poverty. His mother had inherited a small fortune, and his father had acquired several businesses, including a popular chain of cinemas. (As a boy, Rosenberg had spent hours in the plush seats, entranced by the latest American films.) Rosenberg was accustomed to privilege. A car enthusiast, he drove a Mercedes and made an annual pilgrimage to Indianapolis to watch Formula 1 races. He had been married twice but was now single, living in an elegant high-rise overlooking Guatemala City.
Though his wealth allowed him a desultory life, he was “driven and motivated by his goals,” as a relative put it. When he began his studies at Cambridge, he had spoken almost no English, so Rosenberg informed his professors that he had recently undergone surgery on his vocal cords, and could not yet talk in class; in the meantime, he bought a television and watched it each night with closed-captioning until, after three months, he spoke with confidence.
He was not a religious man, but he maintained a stark sense of good and evil, castigating others, as well as himself, for transgressions. When he was a child, his father had abandoned the family, a betrayal that Rosenberg had never forgiven; he even refused to accept an inheritance that his father had left him. One of Rosenberg’s closest friends noted that, if he thought you had crossed him, he could be brutal: “He was always very honest—sometimes, perhaps, too honest. He would say things that are true, but sometimes things that are true that you shouldn’t mention.” Though Guatemala’s judicial system was notoriously corrupt, Rosenberg was drawn to the clarity of the law, to its unflinching judgment. He argued, successfully, before the Constitutional Court, Guatemala’s equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court, and in 1998 he became the vice-dean of a prominent law school. At the same time, he served as counsel for some of Guatemala’s most powerful élites—its coffee barons and corporate executives and government officials.
And, according to Rosenberg, it was a case involving one of these clients, Khalil Musa, that had placed his life in jeopardy. A Lebanese immigrant, Musa had risen from poverty to great wealth, manufacturing textiles and producing coffee. Stern, traditional, and hardworking, he liked to recite the inspirational poetry of Khalil Gibran, and was admired as one of the few magnates in Guatemala who refused to plunder the state or make payoffs for favorable deals. At seventy-six, he suffered from vertigo, and he increasingly relied on the younger of his two daughters, Marjorie, to help him manage his business. Marjorie, who was forty-two, was married with two children, and she had an easy ebullience that infused her simple features with beauty. She had mastered the intricacies of finishing fabrics, and she had always been—as her sister, Aziza, acknowledges, without rancor—their father’s favorite.
Musa lived in an affluent neighborhood of Guatemala City, and Marjorie often drove him from their factory, on the outskirts of the capital, home for lunch. On April 14, 2009, they had set out on such a routine trip. The rainy season was a few weeks away, and so clouds had not obscured the steep volcanic cones that tower over the city, periodically showering the streets with ash. When Marjorie stopped at a red light, just outside the factory, a man got out of a car behind her and approached the Musas’ vehicle from the passenger side, as if to ask a question. He then aimed a 9-mm. pistol at Musa, and opened fire—a blur of smoke and light. The gunman sprinted to a motorcycle, where a driver was waiting for him, and hopped on the back seat. They sped away. The stoplight in front of the Musas’ car turned green, then red, and then green again, but the car remained in place, the engine still rumbling. One of the tinted windows on the passenger side had shattered, revealing father and daughter lying in one another’s blood. They had both been shot in the chest. The police arrived within minutes, but by then they were dead.